Washington State coach Nick Rolovich respects Jonathan Smith’s persistence and Oregon State’s patience.
The Beavers allowed Smith, the boss of their football program, to stay the course.
After three seasons of program building, it’s paying off.
“(Smith) deserves a ton of credit for staying consistent – the staff, philosophy, identity,” Rolovich said Wednesday after a rainy practice session at Gesa Field.
OSU (4-1, 2-0) is one of three Pac-12 teams with an unblemished conference record. The Beavers are in sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 North for the first time in the 11 years since the conference split into two divisions .
They’ll visit Pullman on Saturday to take on the Cougs, who will be celebrating homecoming weekend. OSU has not defeated WSU in its past seven tries, since 2013.
This year, the Beavers are “very good,” Rolovich said – probably better than they have been at any point across the past seven seasons.
“It’s a credit to (Smith) and that staff and those players for building it to the place it is,” Rolovich said. “They have confidence.”
The Beavers seemed to “commit to their identity” after their first game this year, Rolovich noted.
Their offensive line is as strong as any in the Pac-12, their stout tight ends are happy to block, and their corps of running backs has been more productive than any in the conference.
OSU, on a four-game winning streak, runs the ball on 62% of its snaps. Its power-rushing attack piled up a combined 564 yards on 101 carries in the Beavers’ past two wins – over traditional Pac-12 heavyweights USC and Washington. OSU hadn’t topped the Trojans in 11 years, and it’d been 10 years since the Beavers bested the Huskies.
“When you look at their loss at Purdue, I think after that they really zeroed in and decided to be who they are, and have gotten better and better at it,” Rolovich said.
The Beavers ran the ball a season-low 25 times in their 30-21 loss to the Boilermakers in Week 1.
“They work together really well,” Rolovich said. “There’s a lot of unselfishness from that team. There’s a lot of big-body types at tight end or wide receiver who take pride in doing their job, and that doesn’t always involve them getting the ball.”
The Beavers rank first in the Pac-12 and 15th in the FBS in rushing yards per game (229.2). Their offense gains 6.65 yards per play (25th nationally). Three years ago, they ranked in the bottom third of the FBS in most offensive stat categories.
OSU fielded more of a balanced offense over the past few seasons, particularly when gun-slinging Idaho transfer Jake Luton was under center (2018-19). Smith and play-calling OSU offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren – a former Idaho Vandals quarterback (2001-03) – have received praise for coaching to the team’s strengths, identifying where the talent lies and using it.
This season, they have found most success when leaning on dynamic junior running back B.J. Baylor, so they keep going back to him. Baylor has tallied 533 yards and nine scores on 81 carries.
“We’re running the ball well. We’re not trying to win the stat deal, we’re trying to win the game,” Smith said earlier this week in response to a question about his fruitless passing game versus Washington.
Sophomore Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan completed 7 of 15 passes for 48 yards against UW.
A former OSU quarterback and offense-focused coach from the Chris Petersen tree, Smith taught QBs at Boise State in the early 2010s before a productive four-year stint as Washington’s offensive coordinator. Despite the 9-22 record over Smith’s first three seasons in Corvallis, Oregon State’s offense has taken statistical strides from year to year and appears to be nearing its peak.
OSU owns the Pac-12’s top scoring offense at 36 points per game. Crucial in their success, the Beavers have scored touchdowns on 18 of 23 red-zone trips and convert their third downs at a conference-best 52% clip.
“I’ve always been impressed with their situational awareness,” Rolovich said.
“They’ve got a bunch of good, offensive-minded coaches on that staff. The running backs are talented, the O-line’s playing together. It’s not a team where you can say, ‘Oh, look, there’s the weakness.’ ”
While the Beavers’ offense has been drawing most of the attention, the defense has quietly put together a notable start. OSU is 19th in the country in rushing defense (94.4 yards per game) and ranks in the top 50 in scoring defense at 21.4 points per game.
“The offense is very good, but I think they’re also tightening it up this year defensively,” Rolovich said. “They’re very physical up front. They’re very tied together. They’re very understanding of what each one of their roles in the defense is.”
OSU’s program hasn’t had to deal with outside expectations for almost a decade. Smith introduced a slogan to help the Beavers stay on even keel as the eyes shift to Corvallis: “Not done yet.”
“I think we’re a confident group that understands how hard it is to win,” Smith said. “We’re very mature and experienced enough to know that we’ve got a long way to go, and each win sets you up for bigger games as the season goes.”
De Laura named starting QB for rest of season
Rolovich is ready to put to bed the conversation regarding quarterback uncertainty. Barring injury, he’ll be sticking with Jayden de Laura for the rest of the season.
“I’m going in head down, grinding every day,” de Laura said Tuesday, addressing the news that he’s been cemented as WSU’s starter. “I still gotta prove myself to everyone else. It’s not like I’m going to take (a day) off, be satisfied.”
Coming off a knee injury that left him sidelined the week before at Utah, de Laura completed 25 of 41 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns against two picks in the Cougars’ 21-6 triumph at Cal last weekend.
When asked to grade his performance, de Laura said it was “nowhere close to where I should be.” De Laura usually looks to escape the pocket more often than he did in Berkeley. He indicated his rushing attempts were limited because he wanted to prevent any potential damage to his knee.
“Taking it day by day, kind of saving myself for the game, working on making throws in the pocket,” he said Tuesday.
De Laura netted 17 yards on four carries, including a 15-yard scramble outside on a third down late in the game that helped clinch the victory. He entered the game with 88 yards on 17 attempts.
“I didn’t notice any limitations in how (de Laura) played because of his injury,” Rolovich said. “I thought he was really dialed in mentally.”
WSU’s offense remains searching for consistency.
The Cougars showed flashes of progress in the past two weeks, but went silent for long stretches in the second half of both games.
“We can’t just go dormant for a little bit,” Rolovich said.
In the first half against Cal, the Cougars compiled 204 of their 312 yards – their best single-game yardage output in three Pac-12 contests – and converted 6 of 9 third downs. WSU finished 7 of 15 on third downs.
“When we’re good on third down, we’re playing better,” Rolovich said. “The first-half and second-half differences were pretty big there on our side last game.”
Rolovich sought more explosiveness out of his run-and-shoot offense, so he called for a few extra deep shots from de Laura and added plays, installing “some new looks, a few new wrinkles.
“Different personnel groups, formations, some motions, just dressing up (the offense) a little bit.”
The Cougars are still evaluating an offensive line rotation that’s been in use since Week 2. Junior Cade Beresford and sophomore Ma’ake Fifita are alternating at right guard seemingly by the drive. Sophomore Konner Gomness has been starting at center, and senior preseason All-Pac-12 pick Brian Greene – WSU’s starting center in Week 1 who missed three games with an injury – is working at left guard. Veteran tackle Liam Ryan has gotten some time at center, too.
Rolovich established the rotation “mainly because Ma’ake was making so much improvement. He can help at multiple places, keep guys fresher. … There’s a little mixing still going on. Brian can play center, guard. Konner can play center and tackle. Ma’ake can play guard and tackle.”